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The Trial of the Chicago Seven depicts a shameful moment in American history

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Writer-director Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing, Molly's Game) helms this historical drama about a group of anti-war protesters—Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and John Froines (Danny Flaherty)—on trial for conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of starting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (129 min.)

TALKING 'BOUT A REVOLUTION Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sasha baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) enjoy the spotlight as they're on trial for inciting an antiwar riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, in Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago Seven, now streaming on Netflix. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DREAMWORKS PICTURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Dreamworks Pictures
  • TALKING 'BOUT A REVOLUTION Yippies Abbie Hoffman (Sasha baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) enjoy the spotlight as they're on trial for inciting an antiwar riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, in Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago Seven, now streaming on Netflix.

Glen I didn't know a lot about this episode in American history, but it certainly marks another low point. Masterfully told by Sorkin, the story moves back and forth through time, from the courtroom to the days leading up to the convention, and eventually the protest rally and ensuing riot. Exiting President Johnson had already decided not to pursue charges against the protest organizers, but tough-on-crime entering President Nixon wanted to put the hammer down on the counterculture, and this trial proved to be a perfect way to show the antiestablishment types that they weren't going to get away with dissent on Nixon's watch. Judge Julius Hoffman (an excellent Frank Langella) turned out to be the perfect instrument to deliver punishment. His bias is never in question, and his rulings were designed to favor the prosecution, so much so that lead prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems downright embarrassed by the favoritism. The two stars of the antiwar protesters are Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden, and they couldn't be more different. Hoffman is irreverent, rude, and lowbrow. Hayden wants to play by the establishment rules to win his point. All the personalities are compelling, as is the story. This should be required viewing for all Americans.

Anna I too knew this marker in history much more by name than the actuality of what went down in that courtroom, and I plan on delving into it deeper after watching this on-screen depiction. Sorkin created a showcase of talent, and apparently this two-hour drama has been in the works for a long time. I've heard that Baron Cohen had been vying for his role as Hoffman for the last decade. It's a story that needs to be told, it's incredibly infuriating and embarrassing to our justice system, and Sorkin delivers a gripping look at this slice of history. Langella is brilliant as Judge Hoffman, unabashedly biased and contemptuous of the men before him. His seething hate sits just under the skin, and when Bobby Seale doggedly demands his rights to representation and a fair trial, Judge Hoffman comes undone. It's an amazing performance, and he isn't the only standout here; there are a lot of stellar actors giving their all.

Glen Apparently, Sorkin wrote the screenplay way back in 2007, and Steven Spielberg was slated to direct, but after the 2007 Writers Guild strike, budget concerns led to Spielberg exiting the project. The film was also slated for a theatrical release earlier this year, but the pandemic put the kibosh on that, so Paramount Pictures sold the distribution rights to Netflix. There were certainly some compelling characters involved in the case. One of the defendants, David Dellinger, was a conscientious objector in World War II and held very principled antiwar views. He was definitely the more mature voice of reason among the defendants. Their lead counsel, William Kunstler, was a very colorful Civil Rights lawyer, and Mark Rylance is terrific in that role. He's basically tasked with herding this mismatched group of cats through a legal minefield. I would have loved to see this on the big screen, but at least we got to see it sooner rather than later. It's a very compelling slice of history.

Anna While steady and measured, Hayden may seem like the obvious of the seven to take the stand, but after audio of the riot puts him in a guiltier light, they decide Hoffman will instead be questioned. In a beautiful performance by Baron Cohen, Hoffman is calm but frank, citing that if Lincoln had given his inaugural speech in Lincoln Park in the year of the riots, he too would have found himself in a courtroom for the very same reason and that they are in fact on trial for their ideas, not actions. It was a pretty arresting moment in the film, as was the final scene. Sorkin has an obvious knack for courtroom drama and The Trial of the Chicago Seven delivers another meaty and emotional punch. Definitely catch this one on Netflix, and make sure you have time to delve in without distraction; this story deserves our full attention. Δ

Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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